They that approve a private opinion, call it opinion; but they that mislike it, heresy: and yet heresy signifies no more than private opinion. — Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan
In the first century there was no heresy for the simple reason that there was no orthodoxy. The “heresies” referred to in old translations of the New Testament are merely differences of opinion*. Small Christian communities believed what they wanted to and worshipped as they chose.
As we have seen, there were no central authorities, no set rituals, no agreed canon of scripture, no Church hierarchy and no established body of doctrine. In line with the toleration practised throughout the Empire, each group of Christians was free to believe whatever it wanted. The natural consequence of this state of affairs was that ideas and practices in different communities diverged.
Towards the end of the second century Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, saw the dangers of numerous opinions developing. He attempted to establish an orthodox body of teaching. He wrote a five-volume work against heresies, and it was he who compiled a canon of the New Testament. He also claimed that there was only one proper Church, outside of which there could be no salvation. Other Christians were heretics and should be expelled, and if possible destroyed. The first Christian Emperor agreed. Gibbon summarises the edict that announced the destruction of various heretics:
After a preamble filled with passion and reproach, Constantine absolutely prohibits the assemblies of the heretics and confiscates their public property to the use either of the revenue or of the catholic church. The sects against whom the Imperial severity was directed appear to have been the adherents of Paul of Samosata; the Montanists of Phrygia, who maintained an enthusiastic succession of prophecy; the Novatians, who sternly rejected the temporal efficacy of repentance; the Marcionites and Valentinians, under whose leading banners the various Gnostics of Asia and Egypt had insensibly rallied; and perhaps the Manichæans who had recently imported from Persia a more artful composition of oriental and Christian theology.
The design of extirpating the name, or at least of restraining the progress, of these odious heretics was prosecuted with vigour and effect. Some of the penal regulations were copied from the edicts of Diocletian; and this method of conversion was applauded by the same bishops who had felt the hand of oppression and had pleaded for the rights of humanity*.
Further laws against heresy appeared in 380 under the Christian Emperor Theodosius I, who laid down the new rule:
“We command that those persons who follow this rule shall embrace the name of Catholic Christians. The rest, however, whom we adjudge demented and insane, shall sustain the infamy of heretical dogmas, their meeting places shall not receive the name of churches, and they shall be smitten first by divine vengeance and secondly by the retribution of our own initiative, which we shall assume in accordance with divine judgement*.
St Augustine taught that error has no rights. He cited biblical texts to justify the use of compulsion, notably Luke 14:16-23 (especially Luke 14:23). Had not Christ himself blinded St Paul in order to make him see the true light? According to Augustine, coercion using “great violence” was justified. He made a distinction between unbelievers, who persecuted because of cruelty, and Christians, who persecuted because of love. A war to preserve or restore the unity of the Church was a just war, a bellum Deo auctore, a war waged by God himself.
[burning alive was the traditional punishment for the crime of heresy in Christian countries ] He also found a way to avoid churchmen getting blood on their hands: dissension against the Church amounted to dissension against the State, so anyone condemned by the Church should be punished by the State. Centuries in the future such ideas would culminate in the activities of the Inquisition, which also required the secular authority to execute its judgements of blood.
Augustine is often recognised explicitly as the father of the Inquisition, since he was responsible for adopting Roman methods of torture for the purposes of the Church in order to ensure uniformity. Already, in 385, the first recorded executions for heresy had been carried out under Emperor Maximus at the request of Spanish bishops.
Priscillian, Bishop of Ávila, had been charged with witchcraft, although his real crime seems to have been agreeing with Gnostic opinions. Along with his companions he was tried and tortured. They confessed and were executed. The Church now had precedents for both witch-hunting and for persecuting heretics , with a moral underpinning provided by St Augustine.
In theory heresy was the denial of some essential Christian doctrine, publicly and obstinately*. In practice any deviation from the currently orthodox line could be judged heretical. By the fifth century there were over 100 active statutes in the Empire concerning heresy. From St Augustine onward, for well over 1,000 years, virtually all Christian theologians agreed that heretics should be persecuted, and most agreed that they should be killed.
Heresy was explicitly identified as akin to leprosy. It was a disease that threatened to destroy a healthy body of believers if they strayed from the Church’s view of religious orthodoxy, just as leprosy was a disease that threatened the healthy bodies of individuals if they strayed from the Church’s view of sexual orthodoxy. Diseases like this had to be eradicated at all costs.
St Thomas Aquinas thought it virtuous to burn heretics and favoured the option of burning them alive. From around the turn of the millennium, executing heretics became ever more common, and the grounds for doing so became ever more absurd. A group of Christians at Goslar in Germany who declined to kill chickens were executed for heresy in 1051.
A long series of popes supported the extirpation of those who disagreed with the current papal line. Arnold of Brescia, a pupil of Abélard, shared his master’s critical views of the Church, and also embraced the republican ideals of ancient Rome. He held that papal authority was a usurpation and that the wealth and power of the Church was unchristian. He led a movement to re-establish a Roman republic and return the clergy to apostolic poverty. He was hanged and then burned as a heretic in 1155 by Pope Adrian IV.
[Persecution of the Waldensians: the Massacre of Mérindol in 1545] The Waldensians, or Vaudois, followers of Peter Waldo of Lyon, provided the next major target. They gave their money to the poor and preached the Christian gospel. Waldo attracted the hatred of the clergy when he commissioned a translation of the Bible into Occitan, the language of what is now southern France.
The Waldensians started off as perfectly orthodox Roman Catholics, but after reading the bible their heresies mushroomed. They denied the temporal authority of priests and objected to papal corruption. They rejected numerous accretions, including the Mass, prayers for the dead, indulgences, confessions, penance, church music, the reciting of prayers in Latin, the adoration of saints, the adoration of the sacrament, killing, and the swearing of oaths. They also allowed women to preach. They were excommunicated as heretics in 1184 at the Council of Verona, and persecuted with zeal for centuries.
Tthey were formally declared schismatics by Pope Lucius III in 1184 at the Synod of Verona, In 1211, more than 80 Waldensians were burned as heretics at Strasbourg. They were declared to be heretics during the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. The Council stated that their principal error was “contempt for ecclesiastical power”, but they were also accused of teaching “innumerable errors” which the council did not specify. Any deviation from Catholic teaching was an “error”, and priovided sufficient grounds to incur the death penalty. Persecutions were soon stepped up.
Mass Burning of the Waldensians in Toulouse in the 13th century, by an anonymous 17th Century engraver detail from a 1451 manuscript, Hexenflug der Vaudoises(Witch-flight of the Waldensians) by Martin Le FranceIn a single day in 1393, 150 Waldensians were burned at Grenoble. Survivors fled to remote valleys in the Alps.
As usual, the Catholic propaganda machine swung into action to prove the satanic nature of the Church’s enemies. Waldensians were accused of various enormities identical to those supposedly committed by Cathars and witches. All of them worshipped black cats. They milked the handles of brooms into buckets. They used the brooms to fly – churchmen drew pictures of them doing it (see right)
In 1487 Pope Innocent VIII issued a bull for the extermination of the Vaudois. In response, Alberto de’ Capitanei, archdeacon of Cremona, organized a crusade and launched offensives in the provinces of Dauphine and Piedmont. The areas were devasted and survivers fled to Provence and to southern Italy. On 1 January 1545 King Francis I of France issued an order called the “Arrêt de Mérindol”. He assembled an army against the Waldensians of Provence, which carried out another series of massacres. Deaths in the Massacre of Mérindol ranged from hundreds to thousands, depending on the estimates, and several villages were devastated
Persecution of Waldensians in Piedmont
Men, women and children were hanged, drowned, forced over precipices, stabbed or clubbed to death
[Detail from Samuel Moreland’s “History of the Evangelical Churches of the Valleys of Piedmont” published in London in 1658.] In January 1655 the Duke of Savoy commanded the Waldensians to attend Mass or remove themselves to the upper valleys, giving them twenty days to sell their houses and lands. The order, in the middle of winter, was intended to force the Waldensians to attend mass, but ; most of them chose to take to the remote upper valleys, Old men, women, little children and the sick “waded through the icy waters, climbed the frozen peaks, and at length reached the homes of their impoverished brethren of the upper Valleys, where they were warmly received.”
By mid-April, the Duke, having failed in his objective tried another approach. He sent troops into the upper valleys and required that the locals to quarter them in their homes, On 24 April 1655, at 4 a.m., the signal was given for a general massacre. Catholic forces are reported to have unleashed a campaign of looting, rape, torture, and murder. According to a report by a Peter Liegé:
“Little children were torn from the arms of their mothers, clasped by their tiny feet, and their heads dashed against the rocks; or were held between two soldiers and their quivering limbs torn up by main force. Their mangled bodies were then thrown on the highways or fields, to be devoured by beasts. The sick and the aged were burned alive in their dwellings. Some had their hands and arms and legs lopped off, and fire applied to the severed parts to staunch the bleeding and prolong their suffering. Some were flayed alive, some were roasted alive, some disemboweled; or tied to trees in their own orchards, and their hearts cut out. Some were horribly mutilated, and of others the brains were boiled and eaten by these cannibals. Some were fastened down into the furrows of their own fields, and ploughed into the soil as men plough manure into it. Others were buried alive. Fathers were marched to death with the heads of their sons suspended round their necks. Parents were compelled to look on while their children were first outraged [raped], then massacred, before being themselves permitted to die.”
Some 1,700 Waldensians were slaughtered. This well documented attrocity became known as the Piedmont Easter. It aroused indignation throughout Europe (and prompted John Milton to write a poem “On the Late Massacre in Piedmont”). Protestant rulers offered sanctuary to surviving Waldensians. Oliver Cromwell threatened to send military forces to their rescue. Councillors of the city of Amsterdam chartered ships to take 167 Waldensians to their colony in the New World (Delaware) on Christmas Day 1656. A few who stayed behind in Piedmont formed a guerilla resistance movement..
The Murder of the children of Waldensians. Detail from Samuel Moreland’s “History of the Evangelical Churches of the Valleys of Piedmont” published in London in 1658.
In Piedmont in the middle of the seventeenth century, further attempts were made to extirpate them. Anyone in Villaro who declined to go to a Roman Catholic Mass was liable to be crucified upside down, but there was some variation in the manner of killing in other towns. Some were maimed and left to die of starvation, some had strips of flesh cut off their bodies until they bled to death, some were stoned, some impaled alive upon stakes or hooks. Daniel Rambaut had his toes and fingers cut off in sections: one joint being amputated each day in an attempt to make him recant and accept the Roman faith. Some had their mouths stuffed with gunpowder, which was then ignited. Paolo Garnier of Roras was castrated, then skinned alive. Children were killed in various ways before the eyes of their parents. Those few who escaped to the mountains were mostly killed by exposure, starvation or disease*.
In France, in 1685 Louis XIV revoked the 1598 Edict of Nantes, and more massacres followed, with many more thousands losing their lives for the crime of disagreeing with Catholic doctrine.
This image is found on page 345 of Samuel Moreland’s “History of the Evangelical Churches of the Valleys of Piedmont” published in London in 1658. It is one of a number of prints illustrating the massacre of the Waldenses in Provence in 1655. The woman being tortured to death here is Anna, daughter of Giovanni Charboniere of La Torre.
Heretics burned at the stake, British Library, Royal 20 E III f.177v, 1487